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The Loneliness of a College Republican By: Lynn Waldsmith
Ann Arbor Observer | Thursday, September 30, 2004


It’s not easy being a member of a minority at major university.  Just ask Jeston La Croix. As one of the more vocal members of the U-M College Republicans, La Croix has had his share of run-ins with liberal students, faculty, and administrators not to mention the radical group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN).

La Croix says he’s proud to be a member of the Republican Party.  “Not that I agree with everything [the party stands for],” he says, “but certain things such as affirmative action, the way our social programs are instituted, taxes, things like that.  I believe the Republican Party has, maybe not the best stance, but the lesser of the two evils.”

A good-natured junior from Richmond, in Macomb County, La Croix is majoring in political science.  He spent his summer managing a campaign for Dave Kredell, a GOP candidate running for state representative in Port Huron, and harbors ambitions of running for office himself one day.  But he says he didn’t get politically involved until he came to Ann Arbor.

 

“The U of M kind of pushed me towards the Republican Party, in all honesty,” he says.  In his advocacy of conservative causes, he’s frequently clashed with left-wing campus groups.  This past March, La Croix tried to collect petition signatures in front of the Michigan Union for the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a proposal that would ban affirmative action at state universities and public institutions.  He says that BAMN members – some students, some not – blocked access to the petition tables and harassed people who asked for information.  La Croix say” officers from the U-M department of public safety then told the petitioners they would have to leave, because university policy forbade collecting signatures on campus.  Two administrators he questioned later refused to either confirm or deny that the university had such a policy.

 

La Croix says a hall director at Mary Markley dormitory also forced him and several other students to take down anti-affirmative-action posters from their doors. La Croix says he contacted professor Carl Cohen, an affirmative action opponent, and that Cohen in turn contacted U-M president Mary Sue Coleman.  Coleman wrote a letter to the university’s housing administration affirming the student’s right to free speech.  La Croix then put his poster back up, but he says the other students were too frightened to do the same.

 

Then there was the time his political science professor turned the class over to a student to make a pro-BAMN announcement. “This kid spoke and talked about how all people who didn’t agree with affirmative action were racist,” La Croix says. “So I, in a four-hundred-person lecture hall, just raised my hand and asked the professor if I should bother coming to class anymore, or if he was going to waste my time with people coming in and taking up my time in the class and my tuition dollars to indoctrinate me.  I told him I didn’t feel it was an appropriate forum.

 

“So he said, ‘Ah, I’ve got a conservative friend up there,’ and then he wanted me to come down to the front of the class.  And I refused to. So he asked me if I was afraid. And I was, like, ‘No.’ And he was, like “Well, then why are you so scared to come down here?’ And he just kept going and got the whole class to start booing me and stuff.”

 

The professor later apologized – but only after La Croix had complained to the dean’s office.  La Croix says he and the professor have since worked out their differences and now enjoy friendly out-of-class discussions and debate.  But College Republicans say the episode typifies how the U-M is intimidating, if not openly hostile, to students on the right of the political spectrum.

 

“That’s the unfortunate thing with the U of M,” says Ben Saukas, second vice-chair of the College Republicans. “In a school that strives so much to create diversity, it all but chooses what diversity it wants to create…. They try so hard to recruit minorities. They try so hard to create an environment with minority peer advisors so that you can help to integrate, help to move together and come together and form new ideas, bringing people together.

 

“But politically they don’t want to do that.  Politically they want all these people to come together and become Democrats – which I think is kind of self defeating.”

A Grand haven native, Saukas is s sophomore majoring in political science and minoring in theater.  As an active member of both the College Republicans and Campus Crusade for Christ, he’s often felt isolated at U-M.

 

“Even exposing yourself as a Republican in a class is something I’m not always willing to do,” Saukas says. “When I go to my theater class in the Residential College with my sixty-year-old hippie professor and I wear my College Republican shirt – I did that the other day, and I kind of thought about it. I was, like, ‘I’m going to do this, but it’s probably not the wisest thing I’ve ever done in my life.’”

 

Saukas says he’s regularly teased – in a friendly way – by fellow member of the U-M Men’s Glee Club. He describes the chorus as being “like a fraternity but not as wild,” and says that most of its ninety members are very liberal.

 

“I have friends in high school who were Democrats,” says Saukas, who sings first tenor. “I talk to them now and [tell them] ‘I kind of understand what you went through in high school.  The majority of conservatives in my town can say whatever they want, and you just kind of have to shut up and take it.”

 

Last year Saukas identified himself as a CR to a professor and asked whether he could make an announcement about the national kickoff for Students for Bush.

The professor gave his okay.  Saukas made his announcement – and was booed and hissed by the class.

           

“You put your ideas out in the political marketplace. That’s the way it is,” says professor Daniel Levine, outgoing chair of the U-M political science department.  Levine has little sympathy for conservative students who incur the wrath of their classmates. “If I would’ve announced my self as [being with] students for apartheid in South Africa, I would’ve gotten a negative reaction too,” he says. “As people put their ideas out there, then they’ll have to deal with it. I can’t control what student say to him.”

 

CR’s, though, say the students’ attitudes are shaped by their professors.’ Senior Mike Philips says the disproportion between liberal and conservative teachers is particularly glaring in the liberal arts.

 

“There’s probably some conservative professors in different fields,” says the business administrator major, a senior from Marquette. “But a lot of our group are political science majors or history major or some of the real popular liberal arts majors, and so that’s where they’re looking for some conservative balance.  If your physics professor is a Democrat or Republican or Independent it really doesn’t matter--it doesn’t pertain to your subject matter.  But the political science department could be a starting point where there really needs to be a balance.”

 

Levine begs to differ. He says that complaining about a dearth of conservatives is both “inappropriate” and “irrelevant.”

 

“There probably aren’t all that many Lutherans on the faculty either,” Levine says. “Do I think that the university should seek political balance? No, I do not. And I don’t think they should seek a political balance on boards of regents, or among faculty, or students. I think it would be pretty quick on the slope to running a whole kind of system on political grounds. We have enough historical examples to know where that leads.  Do we really want to have political hiring or political purges or any of those things? That’s not what we’re about.”

 

But conservative groups say there’s ample statistical evidence that college faculties discriminate against right-wingers. Nationally, the number of registered Republicans and Democrats is roughly equal. Yet a 2002 report by the American Enterprise Institute found that of faculty who have registered as members of a political party, more than 80 percent are Democrats.  Last year, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture looked at the faculty of thirty-two elite colleges and found that registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans 10-1.

 

Last fall, president Coleman told the Michigan Daily that the U-M faculty represents a full range of political viewpoints.  “We don’t ask people their political views when they enter the university,” she said. “That is not constitutional.”

 

Political scientist Levine concurs. “In my thirty-five years at the university I have served on innumerable search committees and review committees,” he writes in an e-mail. “As chair of the department of political science over the past five years, I have participated in all hiring and promotion decisions. Questions about a candidate’s political views are inappropriate and are not asked.  Allegations to the contrary are completely false.”

 

“He’s correct, “ says political science professor emeritus Ray Tanter. “I’ve never heard anyone ask someone’s political affiliation. You don’t have to. You don’t ask and no one says, but you know…It’s like a country club where you don’t have to really inquire.”

 

David Felbeck, U-M professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, agrees that the bias is subtle.  “These people have gone through seven or eight years of school at other schools where the views are as liberal as they are at the University of Michigan,” says Felbeck, who retired in 1996 to run unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for state representative. “So they are a product of that environment.  We hire very few foreign faculty who haven’t got their doctorates in this country so even they’ve indoctrinated.  It’s a self-perpetuating mechanism.”

 

When Tanter joined the political science department in 1967, he says, “you could count the Republicans on one hand.” Now, he says, you could count then on one finger: “ I’m it. “The only exception he can think of is that since his retirement in 2000, “they may have hired someone [republican] accidentally.”

 

Apparently not. At the Observer’s request, Mark Grebner of Practical Political Consultants looked up the entire department in his database of Michigan voters. Since the state doesn’t require voters to declare a party preference, the East Lansing-based consultant classifies most people by indirect indicators, such as voting in a party’s primary or signing a nominating petition. Of the sixty-five political science faculty listed in the U-M directory, Grebner found forty-four in his database. He identifies twenty of those as Democrats.  Two have both Democratic and Republican indicators. Not one is unambiguously Republican. (Ray Tanter isn’t in Grebner’s database, presumably because he now lives in Washington, D.C.)

 

Grebner, a liberal himself, is willing to give the professor the benefit of the doubt. “I don’t think the department screens out fully competent people who happen to have the “wrong views,” he says. “[Conservative] people who think that income inequality is no big deal, for example, or believe there isn’t much of it, are likely to have defects in their scholarship as well.”

 

Other say that’s letting professors off the hook too easily.  Richard Redding, a law professor at Villanova University and a professor of psychology at Drexel University, is strongly critical of the lack of political diversity on college campuses. In a 2001 article in American Psychologist, he cites a 1986 experiment in which several graduate departments received mock applications from two candidates. The applications were nearly identical, except that one applicant was identified as a conservative Christian. The professors judged the non-conservative to be the significantly better candidate.

 

Founded in 1892, the U-M’s CR chapter is the oldest in the country. With an e-mail list of over 700 students. It’s also the largest in the state. Yet only a couple dozen people attend most meetings, and CRs bemoan the fact that they have not had a faculty advisor for several years, even though every year they check a box requesting one on a registration form that goes to the Michigan Student Assembly (MSA).

 

A faculty advisor would not even have to agree with their political views, they say. He or she would merely help the group get things accomplished – such as planning big events, reserving rooms at the university, or renting a university vehicle.

 

However, according to MSA administrative coordinator Amy McGovern, the U-M College Democrats have also not had a faculty advisor for the past few years. In fact, she says, most of the 900-plus student organizations on campus do not have a faculty advisor.  McGovern says currently there is no system in place to match faculty advisors with student groups.  The box on the registration form serves more as a survey, she says, to determine what the demand for advisors is.

 

“The groups that do have them now search them out on their own,” McGovern says. “They go to a specific department or ask a professor that they know if they’re willing to do it.”

 

The CRs say they would have no idea whom to approach. “I’ve never had anyone who’s even hinted that they might be slightly conservative,” says Dave Krease, a junior.

 

Levine finds it difficult to believe that the CRs can’t find an advisor.  “I know a lot of faculty who are not all that liberal,” he says.  “I’m sure there’s plenty of faculty here who are Republicans.  This is a university with two thousand faculty members, so I find that one hard to credit.”

 

But the CRs claim that many conservative professors are reluctant – if not fearful – to profess political beliefs that contradict the liberal majority.

 

“I don’t think it’s true that there’s zero conservative professors at the university,” Mike Phillips says.  “But I think they’re kind of afraid to express that in any sort of public light – just as a result of the agenda of the administration and what they feel it might do to their careers.”

 

Levine scoffs at the notion that conservative professors are afraid to step forward. “Why would anybody be intimidated?” he asks. “Maybe they just don’t want to be bothered with working with a group like that or any of these student organizations.  People have a lot of demands on their time, and they have families and other obligations as well.  We’re not in the Fifties anymore, where you could be fired for your political views…. I don’t think anyone in any position of responsibility would intimidate anyone – the faculty or the students – for their political views. I find hat hard to believe.”

 

 David Felbeck doesn’t.  “We have some closet non-liberals,” he says.  “But they don’t really want to fight the battle, so they just keep quiet.” That strikes him a perfectly understandable: “I would say if a person is a professor without tenure, there is no question that he or she would keep their mouth shut.”

 

In contrast, CRs say, left-wing professors frequently promote their personal political views during class time.

 

“In my philosophy class we discussed the State of the Union [speech] right after we had heard it on TV the night before,” says CR Katie Philippart. “And [the professor] presented it as an argument. An anything Bush had said was wrong, argument-wise, and this was why. He was using a political example to tell conservatives why they were wrong.”

 

Dave Krease says he feels more comfortable in some classrooms that in others.  “In a lot of classes I will speak up in discussions,” he says.  “But I’ve taken classes where I’ve felt like I didn’t want to speak up, because it was an intimidating atmosphere. And I don’t think you should have that in a classroom. I mean, I’m there to learn – I shouldn’t be afraid to contribute to the discussion.”

 

Julie Zachwieja, the CRs’ secretary, says that she once wrote a paper that “regurgitated the political views” of her instructor, even though she disagreed with them, in an effort to get an A in the class.  But member Andrea Brown says students “can stand up to” some instructors. She recalls a psychology graduate instructor who “in the middle of the class goes off on a complete tangent about how Bush wasn’t even elected or some garbage like that. It was something that didn’t even make sense. And we’re talking about a group of gullible people, not very politically aware. So they’re taking notes on this.  And I pull out my newspaper and start reading, and she kind of looks at me, and she’s like, ‘We don’t read papers in our class’ And I was, like ‘Well, when you’re done, I’ll be glad to get back to the material.’”

 

Levine says that it’s difficult for political science professors to avoid political discussions in the classroom, because their subject matter usually focuses on public policy or foreign policy issues.  Our department’s view is that faculty members should neither teach their political agenda nor require student to perform any political agenda,” he says.  “However, there are students who view certain kinds of conclusions as a political agenda, and they may or may not be.”

 

None of the CRs who spoke with the Observer felt that their grades had been affected by their conservatism.  But several felt the possibility existed.

 

“We’re not conspiracy theorists Saukas says,  “But [the campus is] so left wing that it makes us feel uncomfortable. Maybe they don’t do anything against us but they bombard us with it so much that you get nervous.”

 

Some CRs, though, say that they’re such a small minority as most people might think.  Krease believes that the student population is pretty evenly divided between liberals and conservatives, but most Republican students prefer to keep their conservatism under wraps.  He subscribes the reaction he got during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, when stumped door-to-door for Republican Dick Posthumus.

 

According to Krease,  “a lot of people were, like, ‘Yeah, I’m conservative, I did sign you petition, I’ll take a sticker but I’m not going to put it on my door.’”

 

Saukas thinks part of the problems stems from people’s assumptions.  “When you come here, you know you’re coming to a liberal university, and so you know if you are liberal you can be as loud as you want,” he says. “You know if you’re conservative, don’t speak out.”

 

CR Denise Wang has a different perspective.  She doesn’t see the breakdown between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, as being that clear--cut--at least among students.  “I would say most people I know are neither [Republican or Democrat] Wang says.  “They just don’t really care.”



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